We will be meditating tomorrow, Wednesday, October 5, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Although I didn’t grow up observing this holiday, I like to reflect on elements of it from the perspective of contemplative awareness or wisdom. In fact, the word contemplate comes from a root that means to come inside the temple. This can mean to enter the temple of the body/mind, to look and see within.

The root meaning of atonement in English is “at one.” The traditional observation of this Jewish holy day involves fasting and prayer, and not wearing leather shoes (which I like to think of as touching the earth with your feet, not simply substituting sneakers). Also offering forgiveness and charity–which I like to think of as opening the field of our awareness, offering ourselves and others the gift of a forgiving awareness. We can think of this as forgiving in the way that cozy clothes are forgiving–soft and roomy, welcoming us in all our states. When we meditate we touch a natural awareness that is naturally forgiving, not in the sense of making excuses or arguing our cases, but in letting things be as they are. Letting ourselves be human, flawed, full of regrets even, but still beloved on the earth.

One Yom Kippur, at a particularly low point in my life, I saw a group of Jews , the men in black hats, the women in long dresses, scattering bread on the water. It was explained to me that they were casting away the sins of the previous year. Later that day, I stood at water’s edge and cast away the story of sorrow and regret that I was carrying, giving it to the water and earth and air. I felt as if I was letting go of clinging to a burden that separated me from life I felt enlightened…literally lighter.

Who are we without our stories? Don’t worry, they return. We are story-telling creatures, endlessly updating our narratives. But we can also practice just being human beings, not special or apart but open to a greater awareness. Together and alone, we can practice opening to a greater oneness.

The great stories about ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus reveal that it isn’t always in spite of our weaknesses, mistakes, and shortcomings but through them that something unknown can come into being.   Achilles pride is also the source of his strength (and his weakness is the source of his destiny);  Odysseus cleverness charted a long and perilous journey from the pits of misery and captivity to freedom and homecoming.   The hero with all his glaring flaws, through all his spectacular mishaps, was meant to fulfill what Mary Poppins creator and Parabola founding editor  P.L. Travers called “the essential mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world.”

The revelation is that the same principles apply to the rest of us.  When you hit bottom, a new world can open up.   Friends of mine recently asked me to reflect on how a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune has enriched my spiritual practice.  I’ve been carrying the question around for weeks wondering how in the world a person is to choose.  On the one hand, there has been no catastrophic and soul-defining mistake or misfortune–convicting the wrong man of a heinous crime and spending a life time atoning for (ala the book and movie Atonement) or contracting polio and conducting a war-time American presidency from a wheel- chair like FDR.  On the other hand, my ego is defined by mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes.   I’ve heard the ego defined as the “pain body.”  I’ve heard it defined as a web of habits, of physical, emotional, and mental addictions, all of them aimed at helping us keep our story about ourselves going, defending us from a pure, unfiltered encounter with reality.    The Buddhists speak of the “three poisons” at the root of much of human suffering — greed (or lust), anger (or hatred), and delusion.  Once in a blue moon,  I experience one of these poisons to such a raging, blinding degree that I surrender to the truth of it.   For once, I don’t justify or downplay or deny.  I just admit that I have been helpless to my anger, say, and that it has hurt me and hurt others.   In those moments, it seems clear that what I call spiritual practice has mostly been thinking.  Then, as if by magic, other possibilities open up:  patience for myself and others (and patience is an incredible healing balm against anger),  lovingkindness, connection with what really is.

7 thoughts on “Ulysses

  1. The question, which may at first be experienced as bafflement, of how these poisons come to be in us is important. A moment of intense anger is followed by, ‘how did such intense anger arise in me’? I cannot solve this with my thought. It does not have the necessary data. I only know that I was very angry. But I respect a practice which is ‘not to express negative emotions’. I know very little about this practice and so just try to keep the negative emotion from being visible to others. I am so angry I am shaking but I say nothing. I remain silent. Years pass and still I do not understand why I was infuriated. Then one morning when sitting I see how the anger was created within me. When I was a child growing up in the rural bible belt south I was taught that one must always under all circumstances respect one’s elders, aunts, uncles, parents grandparents and all old people in general.

    In me was this principle, so deep that I hardly knew it was there, must less its influence and strenghth.

    I see that my anger had been a clash between an outward situation involving me, now an elder myself, and a young relative who was manifesting extreme disrepect toward me. This outward situation was in direct opposition to the principles deep within me. Because I refused to allow the anger which resulted from this clash to be manifestated that energy was not wasted. Even though it took two or three years for the understanding to come, it did come. Not only did I understand that particular event but I came to understand in general that our actions, even if we practice self-awareness, arise from sources within us that were implanted by others and by circumstances years ago. But this knowledge can also lead to understanding how it is possible to atone for the sins implanted into us by others when we were being formed in childhood.

    1. It’s extraordinary to encounter how ideas and principles are implanted in us. I begin to see why it’s necessary to work with others.

  2. Perhaps “artxulan” has the beginnings. “I cannot solve this with my thought. It does not have the necessary data.” If we accept that a spiritual experience is beyond “Thought” – or at least not purely rational or not limited to “Right Brain” or “Left Brain” – we can then accept that something else is in action. The Soul. Accepting that we have a Soul, and then beginning to be aware of it could well be a good start on a longer spiritual jouney.

  3. Re Soul: The only thing I know about Soul is what I’ve read or had ‘preached’ to me. It is a bit of scary thing for me. Maybe I don’t have one.

  4. The writer Piers Anthony sugested that we would have to have a soul… in order to wonder if we had one or not. Walsh, in his CONVERSTIONS WITH GOD books suggests that the soul is something beyond: beyond emotion, beyond intelect, beyond instinct. Something we need to learn to listen for, and to. DeMello sugests that faith is search for truth, a journey where we aren’t sure about the destination. Perhaps our soul is what we’re using to reach for truth with.

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